Ignatieff To Leave For Canadian Professorship

Leading human rights expert suspected to have political ambitions

In a move that some scholars say may have political overtones, renowned author and human rights expert Michael G. Ignatieff will leave Harvard next year to assume a visiting professorship at Canada’s largest university.

The University of Toronto announced last month that Ignatieff—currently director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG)—has accepted an offer to join the school’s faculty next January as the Chancellor Jackman Visiting Professor in Human Rights Policy.

“Michael is really a public intellectual,” said Pekka K. Sinervo, dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts and Science. “Fundamentally, he is someone who brings people together into discussions that really move us forward in understanding some of these very difficult rights issues.”

Ignatieff’s decision to take a position at his alma mater has also ignited speculation that he may be eyeing a run for the leadership of Canada’s Liberal Party. In Canadian elections, the leader of the party that wins a majority in the House of Commons becomes the country’s prime minister.

David J. McNally, a professor and chair of York University’s political science department in Toronto, said he believes that Ignatieff’s homecoming is “undoubtedly” political in nature.

“I think he really wants to see if he can capture a certain public imagination around the idea that he is a charismatic and intelligent candidate,” said McNally, who is the author of an upcoming essay on Ignatieff and imperialism.

Ignatieff’s office said he was unavailable for comment. But, in March, he told the Toronto Star that he had no intention of changing careers.

“I have the best job in the world, and I can’t see any foreseeable circumstance where I want to change. And that’s the hand-on-heart truth,” he told the newspaper.

However, in recent months, Ignatieff’s frequent public appearances and bylined columns in Canadian newspapers have fueled suspicions that he may be testing the waters for a potential run. In March, Ignatieff delivered the keynote address at the Liberal Party’s national-policy convention. He also met with top Liberal Party officials in Quebec and Nova Scotia in May, according to news reports.

“In a certain sense, he’s been rebuilding his Canadian profile,” McNally said.

But if Ignatieff does decide to run for an elected office, experts say he will face significant obstacles. Chief among them is the fact that Ignatieff, a prominent intellectual and writer, has never held a political office. A recent poll by the Toronto Star found that only four percent of Canadians consider Ignatieff the leading possibility to replace the current prime minister, Paul Martin.

McNally said he expects that Ignatieff could overcome that roadblock by first running for election as a member of parliament. That would give Ignatieff name recognition, McNally said, and the opportunity to earn a cabinet appointment before gearing up for a full-fledged national campaign.

Ignatieff will continue to teach at Harvard through the fall semester, according to KSG communications director Melodie Jackson. Come January, he will relocate to Toronto to teach an undergraduate political science course on human rights, advise graduate students, and deliver a series of public lectures, according to a University of Toronto press release. The release said he will also serve as a fellow at the Munk Centre for International Studies.

After next year, however, Ignatieff’s intentions are unclear. The University of Toronto appoints visiting professors for a period of one year, with the option of renewal.

“We don’t have any specific commitments [from Ignatieff],” Sinervo said.

KSG policy limits leaves of absence to two years, although exceptions may be made under “extenuating circumstances,” Jackson said.

Prior to coming to Harvard, Ignatieff was a documentary film writer for the British Broadcasting Corporation. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he enrolled at Harvard and completed a Ph.D. program in history in 1976.

—Staff writer Javier C. Hernandez can be reached at jhernand@fas.harvard.edu.